Release Date: Jun 18, 2013
Record label: XL
Genre(s): Alternative/Indie Rock
Sigur Rós has long provided a sort of hymnal template for the secular masses. Those without spirituality or religion latch on to their music as much as believers for the transcendental window it seems to open. Their droning guitars seem to contain entire mythologies, Jónsi’s voice and uninterpretable lyrics as sort of tongues speaking bent on colonizing traditional experience with wonder.
What is bound to be the most popular talking point about Sigur Rós’s new album Kveikur is the band’s ability to take a musical trend – the increasing popularity of drone music and post-rock among certain strains of metal fans, say – and make of it something that is, while unusually dark, unmistakably theirs. The band whose beautiful, soaring, inspiring music became the inevitable soundtrack of natural history programmes became seemingly unsure of where to go, as evidenced by last year’s relatively subdued Valtari. Fortunately, the Icelandic trio has now adopted darker musical stylings to create a record that’s every bit as transcendental as their best work.
Alas, it’s difficult, if slightly unfair, not to expect them to be unerringly the most reality-shattering sonic entity in the universe; and thus it seems a gently wasted opportunity that “Stormur” is really nothing more than, well, pretty…just like them. It’s piercingly obvious how much they yearn to roll the tanks over the barricades on the menacing title track, but by “Bláþráður” they seem to be safely retreating again to solid ground. And so it is that the tragedy of expectation is such that Kveikur, taken in a vacuum, would genuinely leave you gasping in awe—but since this is the band whose very existence has rendered nihilism a no-longer-tenable position, one is simply left aching for something more.
Sigur RosKveikur[XL Recordings; 2013]By Brendan Frank; July 29, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGAt this point in their career, any joke that can be made at Sigur Rós’ expense has already been made. And there are a lot of them. But “pretentious new age treacle” is a much harder argument to push for when you’re in the midst of such transportive music.
Sigur Rós’ relationship with their peers is about as one-sided as it gets: metal bands namedrop them as proof that they can be pretty, pop acts do the same to show an interest beyond verses and choruses. They serve a touchstone for electronic producers interested in apparitional mystery and their music gets placed in movies when directors are looking for a shortcut to beatific beauty. Conversely, with the exception of the Animal Collective-styled “Gobbledigook,” not one Sigur Rós song has suggested a contemporary outside influence.
“It is true that our records have got happier and happier,” said Georg Hólm, Sigur Rós’ bassist, in a 2008 interview. “We don’t have that angst any more.” Something, it seems, has changed. You can see it in Kveikur’s cover art, in its foreboding monochrome binary, its hooded figures recalling Abu Ghraib, the IRA and the Ku Klux Klan, centred and unanchored and unsettlingly ambiguous.
01. It’s abundantly clear that no critic really knows how to write about Sigur Rós. I don’t mean to rag on my colleagues; I’m “stuck in the same boat,” so to speak. 02. Last year, I wrote about Valtari. I was sick and sad and stuck in Chicago. My room was too warm. Writing was, for once ….
Short of a Scott Walker-esque turn for the bleakly absurd, Kveikur (“Candlewick”) will probably be as dark as Sigur Rós will ever get. Melancholy and anger aren’t foreign concepts to the ethereally beautiful world of this Icelandic trio, whose lineup was shortened by one with the departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson in 2012. On their career peak ()—known commonly as “The Bracket Album”—the group channeled their orchestral style into an exploration of the somber side of beautiful.
This is unquestionably a Sigur Rós album. By now, anyone who has heard of the Icelandic post-rock institution knows what that means: Jónsi Birgisson's shimmering falsetto flowing over rolling, experimental soundscapes that build and dissipate with otherworldly elegance. Indeed, that feel is still present, but without multi-instrumental keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson in the line-up, having departed in 2012, the ethereal chill that was taken to an extreme with 2012's Valtari has been toned back a shade.
For almost 20 years, across six albums, celestial string swells and sweet, soothing post-rock have been the cornerstones of Sigur Rós’ sound. It’s a formula that’s seen them become Iceland’s biggest ever band. And one that, in 2005, saw them creep into the mainstream when BBC nature documentary producers cottoned on to their soaring, dewy-eyed symphonies, and borrowed their songs to soundtrack long, lingering shots of the wild in all its majesty on Planet Earth.
Even at their most majestic, Sigur Rós has never been an aggressive band. Beneath all the sweeping, icy-beautiful atmospherics ultimately lies a bunch of mellow dreamers simply indulging in their love for cathartic post-rock. So when the ethereal Icelandic group took to Reddit earlier this year to describe their seventh album, Kveikur, as “more aggressive,” it begged the question: How could a band that's innately gentle and pensive introduce “more” of something it doesn't possess in the first place, let alone pull it off without sacrificing the wonderfully abstract qualities of their sound? As it turns out, perhaps it was simply a language barrier.
Icelandic experimentalists Sigur Rós recently denied that they record at the top of a mountain with elves, an impression often given by their epic, atmospheric music, which often has rock critics reaching for the thesaurus. Even minus the little green men, their seventh album retains the sounds of snowfalls in Heaven and presumably a carefully sourced sonic cathedral. But the band have rung the changes since the 2012 departure of founder Kjartan Sveinsson.
Sigur Rós' seventh full-length starts with amiasma of thunderous crashes. A year later and one member fewer than the paper-thin whisper that was previous album Valtari, it's almost as if the Icelandic trio is making up for lost time with sheer volume. (Either that or frontman Jónsi Birgisson's metalhead roots are finally starting to show.) Regardless, they've succeeded in their mini-reinvention/back-to-basics approach, riding the same wild Norse winds that started blowing with their sophomore album, Ágætis byrjun.
Though it's not necessarily a bad quality, post-rock (especially as it trends to the more ambient side of things), can be an awfully passive listening experience, sweeping the listeners up in drifting buildup and inevitable crescendos without ever really confronting them. Challenging this paradigm, Sigur Rós get sonically adventurous with their seventh album, Kveikur, which finds the Icelandic three-piece delivering a darker and more aggressive sound on one of their most daring albums to date. From the opening moments of "Brennisteinn," the album's opening track that thrums to life through a layer of crackling static with a guttural, churning bassline, it's clear that the band aren't looking for gentle complacency from the listener.
Jónsi, Sigur Rós' lead singer/guitarist is, somewhat notoriously, a fan of heavy metal music. There’s an enormous disconnect between his band and his solo work and, say, Metallica, so it has lead me to a theory about Sigur Rós. An unverified, difficult-to-support theory, but here it is regardless: When Jónsi formed the band (alongside bassist Georg Hólm and Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson, who left the band recently) he actually wanted to make metal but, because of the innate beauty of his voice, he decided he might initially have more success making music that is more easily described as “beautiful,” after which he would show his true colors and make some form of heavier music.
These Icelanders have always had a sideways relationship with the ideas of "pop" and "heavy." Ambient mindblowers like 2002's brilliantly titled ( ) drift and surge rather than swing, but the effect can be sublime and overwhelming. Kveikur has structure and, hello, grit like never before. (The drum-thunder shimmering vocal hook on "Ísjaki"! The distorto bass on "Brennisteinn"! All that riff fuzz on the title track!) Singer-guitarist Jónsi is still bafflingly obtuse – maybe he's falsettoing in Icelandic, maybe it's nonsense – but with no keyboards in sight, Sigur Rós are that most rock of entities: the power trio.
Sigur Rós's seventh album opens with rumbling distortion that explodes into clanging percussion and squelching bass. The song - Brennisteinn ("brimstone" in Icelandic) - is less surprising in its naked aggression than in the literal way it evokes the landscape. Typically, the Icelandic post-rockers resist citing their volcanic surrounds as inspiration, preferring listeners to conjure their own references.
I miss getting lost inside Sigur Rós albums. I miss snaking down dark pathways, guided only by meandering piano or Jónsi Birgisson’s quaking falsetto, not knowing when or where I’ll next see the sun. It’s a feeling I haven’t enjoyed since 2002’s ( ), a wordless record that dealt out sadness and anger and loneliness and confusion with equal rigor.
Ísjaki, meanwhile, is as catchy a song as Sigur Rós have ever penned and will soundtrack every missed goal, every whale-pod journey, every sunshine-through-rain moment on every TV trailer well into 2014. Kveikur is the definitive album fans of Sigur Rós have wanted the band to make since 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, and then some. The trouble is, much of it still sounds about as vital as Coldplay Babelfished into Icelandic.
For a band as established as Sigur Rós to lose an intrinsic member is no small thing. Historically, these losses have always been a catalyst for change – sometimes good, sometimes catastrophic – and at January’s announcement of the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson from the Icelandic legends’ lineup (the first real game-changing turbulence in the band’s career) their enormous global following said a mournful farewell and waited anxiously for news from the officially-remaining three. It wasn’t long before news began coming, drip by drip, and now, with their release of their seventh studio album, their playful hints at a change in direction have been delivered upon.
byBEN BROCK WILKES When I heard there was yet again a new Sigur Rós record on its way—only a year after Valtari’s post-hiatus return to form—I looked forward to the listening opportunity as I have been accustomed to over the band’s fifteen year history: anxious to be ushered into a cozy dream world by nuanced, pastoral tranquility. The Icelandic trio’s seventh studio record, Kveikur, translates to “candlewick,” an object whose destiny is to combust into hot plasma in order to shine light on nocturnal pastimes. It is with this spirit that fans and newbs alike must approach Kveikur; not as a chance to get lost in the subtle tides of an ethereal daylight as in the past, but to bear witness to a fire forged by fallible humans, a direct assault on darkness fueled by the energy and aggression of the night.
Sigur Rós, then. Surely we all know what to expect by now, right? Makers of records full of sweeping grandiosity and ten-minute epics almost tailor-made for breathtaking nature documentaries, untranslatable lyrics in a made-up language and an overall aura that will leave you wanting to run outside and hug a glacier. Or something.Well, think again. Because for new ‘un ‘Kveikur’ they’ve clearly been surfing whatever the Icelandic version of Urban Dictionary is and taken great, joyous interest in the equivalent phrase to what we, in our finest Anglo-Saxon, would deem ‘growing some bollocks’.
In fairness to Sigur Rós, they have self-awareness on their side. In some ways, the BBC's use of 'Hoppípolla' on their Planet Earth series gifted them a double-edged sword, for while it brought the band's work to the attention of a far wider audience than an Icelandic post-rock group may have previously hoped, it also forged an almost unbreakable linkage between their expansive compositions and biome-conquering footage of freshly fallen drifts crowning Alpine crests or shoals of rainbowfish frolicking amongst irritatingly beautiful Pacific islets. And the band have now rightfully taken hold of this perception and turned it to their advantage .
Most people are familiar with Sigur Rós thanks to their soaring style of post-rock’s easy affinity with epic televisual events. Their tendency to emotional spoonfeeding notwithstanding, Sigur Rós’ music has always been technically superlative, from the falsetto of Jonsí (singing in a self-penned language called Hopelandic, no less) to the bowed guitar and, more recently, string and horn sections. The new album Kveikur (Candlewick) has been billed by the band as the “anti-Valtari”, a self-produced attempt to address the increased glossy accessibility of recent albums Takk… and Valtari.